After spending almsot 4 years at Lastminute.com, Dan Yates decided it was time for him to try his luck running his own company, he started Pitchup.com. Pitchup.com is the easiest way to find a campsite or caravan holiday.
I spoke to Dan as he talked me through his journey since starting Pitchup.com, how the idea for the company came about, some of the difficulties starting the business and his reason for leaving Lastminute.com to run his own Start-up.
Can you give you some background information about yourself, were you the entrepreneurial type growing up?
Definitely - the entrepreneurial force was strong in our family! All of my close relations were working for themselves in one way or another and seemed to have their own interesting project of some sort.
As children we did odd jobs like envelope stuffing and taking phone enquiries in our family business (a holiday park in north Devon). We took on more responsibility as we got older – I built the company’s first website and overhauled the on-site sweet shop, learning more than I’d anticipated about chocolate dips, mini milk bars and panda cartons in the process.
We were always encouraged to try out our own ideas which neatly coincided with a strong desire to do things my way. I made our school newsletter self-financing by selling adverts, sold motorbike rides and set up a campsite - so setting up a company was always an ambition of mine and the 9-5 lifestyle as an employee felt pretty alien.
You were previously at lastminute.com at a senior level, why did you decide to leave that post to start your own company?
I’d finished a couple of big projects at lastminute.com and it finally felt like the right time to realise my ambition. Holidays in the UK, and particularly camping, were on the up; I’d worked for the most exciting online travel brand for nearly four years; and the opportunity wasn’t going to exist for ever. Age was a factor too – it was going to take a while to test the market and personal commitments can sap the risk appetite of the most intrepid entrepreneur.
What would you say were some of the key things that you learnt from that experience?
In many ways, even as a 2,000-person company, lastminute.com had retained its start-up culture. Transparent, risk-taking and collaborative, it was a place where staff seemed to personify the brand, with ideas for new features, improvements and campaigns emerging from all parts of the organisation.
Of course, working in a leading online travel agent provided a great insight into the global travel market and into online marketing, in sectors with higher online penetration than our own. But lastminute.com was also a lesson in how to hustle and how a workforce sustains the personality of a brand. Countless employees have gone on to start their own companies.
What is Pitchup.com?
We want Pitchup.com to be the easiest way to find a campsite or caravan holiday. It’s a bit of a hybrid – part online travel agent, part listing and review site. Because online booking was rare in the sector, we plumped for a ‘freemium’ business model to attract as many site managers to claim their listing as early as possible. All camping and caravan sites receive a free listing, and they can upgrade to add a booking engine and appear higher in our search pages. We take a commission for each booking: unlike directory sites we’re paid on success only and there are no placement fees.
Typically, online travel sites work reasonably well if you’ve got specific criteria for your accommodation (wifi, adults only, good bathing water), but not if your holiday revolves around something else – a major event or attraction for example. We want to change that, so nearby attractions and events are a big emphasis for us and we’ve integrated with a large number of external data sources – from The Good Pub Guide to VisitBritain.
Tell me how the idea for Pitchup.com came about?
A long time ago actually – especially if you reckon the internet ages in dog years. In 1998 I strong-armed my proudly Luddite father into letting me set up a website for his business. By 2002 about half of customers were submitting card details online, and we had top rankings in Google for the main industry terms.
This was during the first rush of dot-com fever when you couldn’t open a newspaper or switch on the TV without hearing about the latest oversubscribed flotation. A small number of sectors - flights and hotels, fashion, books, auctions and finance – seemed to dominate the headlines. Yet it’s hard to imagine a sector of the economy unable to benefit from the internet: our own experience had shown that campsite and caravan park customers were no different to the rest of the population in embracing the web. I couldn’t understand why the self-catering market wasn’t taking the web more seriously when every other major sector of the travel market couldn’t get enough of it. The large online travel companies seemed to be occupied elsewhere, and even now fewer than 20% of hotel bookings are made online in some European countries.
Every so often the itch to launch something resurfaced but it wasn’t until 2008 that I started prototyping something.
Why start a camping site? What do you like most about camping?
For me, the interesting things about this market are its variety and the outdoors fix. Other sectors have the constraint of walls, but these days you can stay in a treehouse, dome, pod, tipi or wigwam – as well traditional tents, motorhomes, touring caravans, lodges and static caravans.
These new structures are attracting a whole new customer base, many of whom wouldn’t dream of staying in a traditional tent or caravan but might be into outdoor activities, or rediscovering the UK after ticking off the easyJet route map over the last decade.
When last did you go camping?
Last autumn in Hay-on-Wye. It was a riverside campsite and it unfortunately rained a fair bit. The moral of that trip is not to try putting up an eight-man tent for the first time by car headlight.
Talk me through the first few months of running the business? What would you say was the hardest part of starting the business?
It was relatively easy to begin work on prototypes, although finding good developers was a challenge. We were fairly happy with the website when it launched, but launches can be quite anti-climactic. Most aren’t inherently newsworthy, and a website which is a million times better than your first prototype is suddenly exposed to the sometimes brutal forces of online feedback and commercial viability! Yes, it’s a wonderful thing that users report bugs or suggest new features, and viability is even better, but think of the period before you launch as a warm-up. Don’t launch with perfection – you’re unlikely to guess what that is – but get as much feedback as soon as possible, including beforehand. A brand-new proposition on a recently-launched website isn’t an easy sales job, so we also spoke to campsite owners with a view to signing them up: we needed inventory before we had anything to promote to customers.
Timing is one of the toughest things, especially if you’re bootstrapping. It’s hard to ensure that different workstreams coalesce at deadlines, especially when those responsible are in multiple locations and work different hours. Set, monitor and reset deadlines where possible; by all means try project planning tools, but these don’t always suit the scrappy way in which many start-ups develop. Timescales for technology development are notoriously difficult to predict, for example.
Would you say the initial idea for the company, or that your business model has changed since 2009?
Yes. Originally I wanted to solve the problem of how to find a site that matched multiple criteria, which the existing directories couldn’t do, and earn revenue via advertising. The decision to take bookings on the site came later, as we realised that expanding the number of sites with access to a good online booking tool was fundamental to meeting user expectations and making the numbers work.
How big is your team now?
It varies between 5 and 15 according to the time of year – camping and caravanning is extremely seasonal.
What would you say has been some of the most crucial that you've done to build the company to this level now?
Throughout the business we’ve adopted ‘grown-up’ techniques early to expand the business as quickly as possible, for example our decision to engage a PR agency in our first year. However, I would say that our commitment to developing our product (the website) is the most crucial, and underpins much of our off-site marketing.
Is the business profitable?
No, but it should be later this year.
What pieces of advices could you give to aspiring entrepreneurs out there?
Test your idea as early as possible and ‘fail fast’. The web makes this so much easier and cheaper than it used to be.
Run the business. As an entrepreneur you’ll have no trouble filling every waking hour with conferences, meet-ups and meetings. Choose carefully: the real cost of a meeting, including travel time, can be half a day of your time at least, and while you need to keep up with what’s going on in your sector, a constant flow of ‘ideas’ will distract you from execution, and not only while you’re actually attending. What they say about perspiration and inspiration is right.
Cultivate the media. There’s nothing like coverage in high-quality media to burnish your credibility in the early days.
What can we be expecting from you and Pitchup in 2012?
We’ll be concentrating on increasing the number of bookable sites in the UK market and optimising the website. The response from campsite operators over the last year has been terrific – more than 200 sites are now signed up to our booking service versus 20 this time last year – and we want to get to scale in this market before expanding overseas. As for customer acquisition, I can’t go into detail on our marketing plans but suffice to say that we have a few ideas that should be a first for this sector!